There are no talking heads in Apollo 11, the remarkable new documentary about the first manned mission to the moon. Including hindsight recollections would have spoiled the manufactured present tense—the way director Todd Douglas Miller, working with a trove of stunningly preserved archival footage, creates the sensation of experiencing these historic events as though they were happening right before you, not half a century ago. The total absence of interviews makes the film, which completes a one-week engagement on IMAX screens today before expanding into more markets and theaters, something of an outlier among mainstream documentary releases. After all, is there a more commonplace technique in contemporary doc filmmaking than someone gabbing right into the camera, face perfectly framed and lit?
If Apollo 11 looks almost radical—even borderline experimental—compared to the kind of documentaries that generally make their way into multiplexes, it fits right in at the True/False Film Festival, where it screened a few times this past weekend. Now in its 16th year, True/False has built a reputation as not just one of the most significant annual events on the nonfiction-cinema calendar but also as a mecca for those seeking the medium’s artier, headier, more adventurous new offerings. Talking heads aren’t all that’s in scarce supply at the fest. There’s also a general dearth of computer-generated graphs and graphics, of closing instructions to visit a website, of celebrity cameos—hallmarks that aren’t verboten here, exactly, but which tend to characterize the sort of conventional doc sensations that True/False only sporadically programs.
It’s not hard to see why film critics have taken a special shine to this festival—and I’m not just talking about the fact that most of us, full disclosure, cover it as official guests, put up in hotels and carted into downtown Columbia, Missouri each day by free shuttles. The venues—concert halls, college auditoriums, even churches—are no more than 10 minutes away from each other on foot. That makes True/False a uniquely navigable film festival. It’s also one designed to accommodate multiple notions of the ideal fest experience. Because the lineup isn’t gargantuan, and because most films play multiple times over its Thursday-to-Sunday timeframe, it’s possible to see nearly everything. Conversely, those seeking a more laidback, leisurely weekend can work ample downtime into their schedule, and still not have to worry about being up at the crack of dawn or out late to catch a film. The vibe is relaxed and communal.
Not that the programming alone wouldn’t keep people coming back. There’s a real identity to this fest, its manageable slate of selections all speaking, in some way, to its mission to highlight provocative, probing nonfiction work. Even when one ends up not “liking” a particular movie, it’s usually easy to grasp why it was picked. Take, for example, Over The Rainbow, the umpteenth documentary about Scientology. Though spending years earning the trust of current members theoretically opens a new window on the topic—like Apollo 11, it allows a present-tense perspective, rather than the past-tense one offered by Going Clear’s excommunicated interviewees—there’s nothing very illuminating about the spacey testimonials. (Only a scene of a woman pleading with her father to treat her like a daughter instead of a Sea Org recruit cuts past vague true-believer platitude.) All the same, the film passes the True/False test, in that it raises questions about access and intentions, and has a real visual language, albeit one perhaps best described as “ominous B roll.”
Likewise, one can see the reasoning behind including Sundance audience-award winner Knock Down The House, a traditional campaign documentary on what turned out to be a very untraditional campaign. Technically, the film tracks four Congressional hopefuls in the spring of 2018, all progressive female candidates hoping to primary “establishment Dems” in their districts. But three of the four races are basically relegated to the subplot sidelines, because the fourth centers on none other than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her major upset victory over Joe Crowley. There’s integrity to director Rachel Lears’ refusal to transform the project into just a glorified AOC origin story... even if it does function most successfully as an inadvertent victory lap for the rising political star, along with a tidy summary of what folks love about her politics and fighting spirit.
True/False is carefully curated, its lineup a hodgepodge of world premieres and films plucked from different festivals around the world. One programmer, by way of an introduction, talked of racing from Taipei to New Taipei City to catch a 7 am fest screening of Home, Sweet Home, which somewhat shapelessly covers decades in the family life of a woman whose disability doesn’t prove to be the death sentence her doctors diagnose. Closer to home, the fest will often look to the nonfiction sidebars of Sundance. That’s where they found the involving, prize-winning American Factory, about a defunct General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio that’s resurrected as the American manufacturing hub of a Chinese auto-glass company. In Park City, the film caught a few charges of xenophobia, some arguing that its depiction of the foreign workers and management as, effectively, an occupational force risked stoking anti-outsider sentiments. Yet one could also make the case that American Factory is balanced to a fault. “There are no villains here,” directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert remarked before the movie’s screening in the majestic Missouri Theatre—and in their well-intentioned efforts to honor the perspective of even the billionaire CEO, the filmmakers come dangerously close to presenting union-busting tactics as a defensible position. At its strongest, the film simply observes the clash of Chinese and American workplace values—a source of fascination and occasional hilarity.
If one needed proof that True/False is committed to non-traditional work, it could be found in another non-premiere. The Grand Bizarre, by avant-garde animator Jodie Mack, is an hour-long, hypnotically rhythmic collage, using stop motion to create fluttering montages of fabric and textile. Unlike just about everything else at the festival, it speaks almost exclusively through its imagery and dense, stuttering soundtrack; there definitely are no interviews here, nor much in the way of people at all—Mack’s language is patterns, the rapid-fire dance of rugs and shawls and blankets she throws onto the reflective surface of a rearview mirror or the wall of a building. There were walkouts at Thursday night’s 35mm screening (the only celluloid presentation of the fest), and judging from the faces of those who stayed, uncertainty as to how this unabashedly experimental film qualified as documentary. Dazzlingly, one might reply, as Mack is also meditating, though her globe-hopping reverie, on the manufacturing, distribution, and appropriation of culture material. Which is to say, her Grand Bizarre is about more than its own bewitching design.
Similarly, Brett Story’s The Hottest August comes at climate change, one of the most exhaustively examined of documentary subjects, from a more abstract, anecdotal angle. Filmed during a particularly scorching summer, the film bounds around New York City, prompting various residents—skateboarding teens, Hurricane Sandy survivors, a kind of cosplaying sci-fi astronaut—to muse on the future, in vignettes that sometimes recall the more scattered, oddball-obsessed human mosaics of Errol Morris or Werner Herzog. The outlook that emerges is dim, and Story implicitly connects that overriding pessimism to a rapidly approaching point of no environmental return. Can disaster be averted when everyone seems to have been conditioned to accept its inevitability?
The air of collective defeatism would appall Al Gore, but The Hottest August is too suffused with perspectives and personalities to be truly dispiriting—including those of Story herself, whose offscreen interjections raise the question of how much a documentarian should foreground their own presence in a film. Should they be invisible instead, like director Nuria Ibáñez Castañeda, whose A Wild Stream plays like a nonfiction version of one of those indie dramas that dances around the unspoken traumatic backstory of its characters? The “characters” in this case, a pair of fishermen living on a remote Latin American beach, mostly just go about their solitary daily business, occasionally disrupting the mundane routine with casually, profoundly revealing late-night conversation. It leaves one wondering if their candidness is a product of edited-out directorial prodding, hard-earned trust, or just a general, 21st-century comfort with constant exhibition. Whichever it is, Let It Burn, about a São Paulo hostel that serves as free shelter for homeless addicts, provokes similar curiosity, given how achingly, volcanically vulnerable its subjects are often willing to be with a camera watching everything.
Elsewhere at the fest, filmmakers do more than make their presence known on screen. They put themselves under the microscope. Midnight Traveler, which also came to Columbia by way of Park City, is undeniably powerful as a firsthand account of the refugee experience. It unfolds over three years and strictly from the cellphone-camera vantage of filmmaker Hassan Fazili, who had to flee Afghanistan with his family when the Taliban put out a hit on him for his involvement in a previous project. Fazili’s wife and children are immensely lovable—you’d have to be made of stone not to become invested in their urgent hunt for safe passage. But the film is perhaps most interesting for how it pits the director’s sense of responsibility to his family (and guilt about putting them in danger) against his enduring impulses as a documentarian—a conflict that comes to a devastating, self-reflective head during a late moment of crisis.
Doc ethics also rear their head, much more comically, in “Finding Frances,” the sublime feature-length series finale of Nathan Fielder’s defunct and often brilliant reality-TV cringe-fest Nathan For You. Bringing along some deleted scenes from the year-and-a-half-old episode, Fielder fielded questions about the methodology of his shtick, suggesting that the show’s ultimate aim was to elicit honest “human moments”—a lofty goal to which any documentarian could stand to aspire. If the comic had a kindred spirit at the festival, it was probably Danish doc prankster Mads Brügger (The Ambassador), whose Cold Case Hammarskjöld goes digging into a decades-old mystery: the death of Dag Hammarskjöld, one-time Secretary-General of the United Nations, who perished in 1961 in a suspicious plane crash. Acknowledging that he’s either going to uncover a massive criminal conspiracy or fall for a particularly stupid conspiracy theory, Brügger tracks down old leads and digs up old files, all while couching the gradually unspooling investigation in a lot of self-conscious, Charlie Kaufman-esque structural gimmickry.
Jury is apparently still out on how much of Cold Case Hammarskjöld can be trusted; there’s enough early winks about Brügger’s concerns that he won’t find a proper resolution to cast the big revelations he does seem to uncover under some suspicion. That slipperiness does, of course, make the film a perfect choice for True/False, whose very name betrays an overarching interest in actually questioning the veracity of documentary—in encouraging audiences to consider what makes a film “real.” Hell, the organizers have made an actual game out of the debate: a popular annual event called Gimme Truth!, wherein a panel of three filmmakers try to determine whether a series of amateur shorts are documentaries or mockumentaries. As the crowd speculates wildly, the experts take different interrogation routes with their potential deceivers. Is it better to pump them for information they should have or demand an emotional reaction that can’t be faked? It’s all good fun, but also an exercise in active viewing. Which is to say, a microcosm for this whole annual summit, a film festival that keeps you comfortable even as it keeps you thinking.